What is happening to the obsession with culture?

In our previous post, we suggested that, in “the development field,” culture talk may already look different from the time we wrote Seeing Culture Everywhere, and that the kind of para-ethnographic approach we argue for is gaining ground. What about the rest of the areas of public and corporate policy we cover in the book?

Huntingtonianism still rules in IR
In international relations, there is little evidence of cultural determinism becoming less popular at the level of explanations, although with the shifts in U.S. foreign policy rhetoric and the fatigue that has set in regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the emphasis is more on solving day-to-day issues. In China, the local version of “Asian values,” centred on Confucianism, is doing better than ever and is increasingly infused into writings on foreign policy, although it is curiously combined with universalistic claims that suggest a new world system usually signified with the word tianxia, “all under heaven,” understood to mean a kind of non-Westphalian system vaguely reminiscent of tributary relations. (More on this in a forthcoming post.) Ethnic explanations of the “ancient hatreds” kind also appear to remain the most popular in armed internal conflicts.

From multiculturalism to interconfessionalism
The trends we describe in the way most Western states — including Western Europe and Australia — manage diversity continue, too. There remains a tension between the ongoing and increasingly stringent attempts to wrench rights and obligations away from previously designated ethnic “communities” and drag them back onto individuals through all kinds of “integration courses,” citizenship exams and bans on headscarves or arranged marriages, on the one hand, and the promotion of “interfaith dialogue,” with officially recognized religious leaders, on the other. Many of the problematic aspects of multiculturalist policies are now resurfacing in the form of interconfessionalist policies. We are looking forward to the findings of Thijl Sunier, Pál’s colleague, who is beginning a multi-country ethnography of Muslim organizational leadership.

Nor does the proliferation of “intercultural communication” trainings show any signs of abating, and Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions” still rule the seas. We must confess that IC is an area that we particularly enjoyed lampooning; it was a pleasure, for instance, to quote from Brendan McSweeney’s brilliant piece in which he scrutinizes Hofstede’s assertion that Freud’s theories had to do with Austrian culture’s “combination of a very low power distance with a fairly high uncertainty avoidance,” which means that “there is no powerful superior who takes away one’s uncertainties.” McSweeney points out that Adolf Hitler and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, both Austrians of Freud’s generation, were rather keen on submitting to powerful superiors, although in different ways.

The Rat and the Rabbit
And finally, the battle for the group ownership of “native culture” continues. The inclusion of two bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace in Peking in last year’s auction of the Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Berge collection triggered both official and popular protests in China, which had earlier been relatively subdued about claiming artifacts back from foreign museums. Later in the year, a Chinese archaeologist sponsored by a liquor company organised a high-profile tour of Western museums to take stock of art looted from the Summer Palace. On another front, the New York Times recently (23-24 January) reported that a performance by world ice dance champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at the European Championships that employed Australian Aborigine motives in outfits and music was condemned by the New South Wales Aboriginal Council as another instance of “stealing Aboriginal culture.”

From culture to class, wealth and work?
All that said, we do have the impression, that the world’s mind has been taken off culture to some extent. The perceived (and perhaps real) crisis of “neoliberal” economics means a renewed attention to class, wealth, and work as generators of conflict and common interest. This attention is not always well-conceived and can be downright sinister; it can also resurrect earlier generalizations about group culture, this time linked to money. But it does perhaps generate a welcome opportunity for micro-level studies of powerful institutions.

3 thoughts on “What is happening to the obsession with culture?

  1. I have to disagree with your claims regarding IR and cultural determinism. See Patrick T. Jackson, Erik Ringmar, Iver Neumann, etc. While these scholars don’t have the stature of Huntington, they are moving the discussion of culture in a more agentic direction.

  2. Hi Joana and Pal,

    I am a business consultant who has conducted cross-cultural training programs for business managers being sent on expat packages (from various countries, to various countries). I have a psychology undergrad degree and I also minored in sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, and German. I have an MBA, and I began a PhD at the University of London in “cross-cultural organizational behavior” (though I did not finish it). I also have lived and worked in 6 countries, for long or quite-short periods of time.

    As a condition of being employed as a consultant for them, I was trained by one of the world’s largest cross-cultural training companies on how to educate ex-pats on these issues, but the training sessions that I led also utilized my other education and experiences, of course.

    After a couple of years of practical work, I still see myself as a novice in this field, and I am interested in learning about how different fields approach cross-cultural training and research — psychology, sociology, anthropology, communications, political science, business, even religion (in terms of the surprisingly huge number of books written for missionaries on how to understand culture and live in other cultures). I’ve had to embark on studying this all on my own, because I haven’t been able to find a book or course syllabus that ties the whole thing together. It is hard to get a handle on, because every academic field is so frustratingly fragmented, self-promoting, disdainful of other approaches, and inward-looking.

    I personally don’t involve ideas in my training sessions that seem to me to be untrue or based on misunderstandings or poor research, and of course my highest intention is to help the people I train to further their understanding of others, co-exist more comfortably, respect others more, and so on. I also don’t take the results of any one researcher/writer as “gospel” – there are a lot of possible cultural “dimensions” that make sense and provide “a-ha moments” or useful learnings, and many researchers have studied such aspects, not just Hofstede.

    Therefore, I am wondering if it is possible for you to direct me to a copy of your article which you mentioned in your other blog post on this website – the article that you said was published in 2001 in a German intercultural training publication and which caused a stir in their professional community. If there is an English translation available, that would be great; although I studied German for quite a number of years, my knowledge is not at the level of reading a specialized article, though I could pull out my dictionary, fire up those neglected brain cells, and take a stab at it!

    You wrote in this blog post, “Nor does the proliferation of “intercultural communication” trainings show any signs of abating, and Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions” still rule the seas. We must confess that IC is an area that we particularly enjoyed lampooning….” Where was it that you “enjoyed lampooning” intercultural communication trainings – was it in your new book _Seeing Culture Everywhere_? I tried to “search inside” your new book on amazon.com, but “search inside” is not enabled for your book (it would be great if you could get the publisher to enable that!)

    If the typical intercultural training program is not sufficiently research-based or theoretically-strong (and the typical one probably isn’t; I don’t know for sure, because I only am acquainted with the content of my own training sessions, and I’ve resisted joining SIETAR), I don’t think the answer is to end such trainings, but to make them more truthful, educational, useful.

    Over and over again I have seen how the ideas that I teach people facilitate greater understanding, respect, and ability to navigate living in another region of the world. At the end of the sessions, the clients almost always tell me that beforehand they had had low expectations of what this kind of training would offer, but were surprised at how helpful and applicable-to-their-lives the program was.

    Do you recommend an alternative for how business people and other such “ordinary” ex-pats (non-academics/non-fieldworkers) can be prepared for living and working in another culture? What do you think needs to be added to and deleted from such training programs?

    To malign the field of intercultural training because some people do it badly, teach unsubstantiated ideas, or don’t have academic training in acceptable social science fields is like saying that acupuncture doesn’t work because homeopathy doesn’t work, and they are all a part of “alternative medicine,” so the whole thing is probably suspect. Now, I’m not saying that this is your position on intercultural training as a whole! Maybe you were just lampooning certain practitioners.

    If I continue working in this field, I want to use my social science background and the best research and teaching techniques that every related academic subject has to offer.

    I would sincerely welcome advice from anthropologists on how to do that!

    (I don’t know if I may put an email address here or not. I can be reached at nantucketsunrise {at} hotmail {dot} com. I will also check back to see if any replies have been written here.)

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